What if I told you one of the best places to visit in all of Japan, is a small town of 8,000 people nestled away in the middle of Hokkaido?!
A town with a cafe culture so strong that entire books have been made about it. A town with its own ski resort, its own ice and snow sculpture festivals and unique traditions that make people from all over Japan and even abroad pine to move to this charming Hokkaido hidden gem. A town called Higashikawa.
While you might not have heard of this small town before, you may have heard of some of the famous Hokkaido attractions to be found nearby or seen photos of the stunning landscape that surround this beautiful part of the country. National Geographic have even written about its wonders!
From frozen waterfalls and blue bonds, to show shoe and snowboarding adventures, hiking, fireworks festivals, cafe culture and more – here are 11 great reasons to add Higashikawa to your Japan bucket list, and plan a winter escape to the gem of Hokkaido.
A photographers dream
Photography is so big in Higashikawa that it has been nicknamed the “town of photography”. And this isn’t a recent nickname, dating right back to 1985 – when it was considered the only “town of photography” in the world.
Not only is it home to some established and very talented international wildlife photographers, some of whom have been published by National Geographic, but it’s prepping the next generation too. The schools even have “Camera Clubs” where kids as young as 6 and 7 and handed over Canon DSLR cameras and given the role of official photographers at events and festivals.
The town also plays host to various photography competitions such as the National High School Photography Competition and the Higashikawa International Photography Festival.
With the surrounding countryside teeming with red foxes, rabbits, bears and host of hunting birds and other wild animals, with views of mountains, national parks, waterfalls, rivers and volcanoes, as well as landscapes that fluidly change colors with the seasons – it’s easy to see why this town is a photographers dream. It’s also a great base for visiting Hokkaido hot spots such as the town of biei and beautiful Furano and its lavender fields!
Perfect power on Asahidake
I could write an entire post on the magic of Asahidake. The tallest mountain in Hokkaido, Asahidake is part of the Daisetsuzan Volcanic Group and inside the Daisetsuzan National Park. A snowboarders dream – this is where the pros come every winter in search of the perfect powder.
To get to the top of the mountain, you can ride the famous Asahidake Ropeway – a cable car that takes riders up to an altitude of 1,600 meters on Hokkaido’s highest peak.
From the comfort of the cable car, you can look down on pro snowboarders carving up the powder, trees heavily blanketed in snow and if you’re very lucky, you might even see some natural phenomena found here such as diamond dust or sun pillars that only occur in very particular and unusual weather conditions.
This is one of the coldest places in Japan, with temperatures on the mountain often reaching minus 20 degrees Celsius or lower in winter. The mountain gets up to 45 feet of snow each winter, with winter lasting from September to May, and is know to be one of the best powder destinations in the world.
View this post on Instagram
Snow shoe adventures
While there are many places in Japan that you can go on snow shoeing (including beautiful Wakkanai), a snow shoe adventure in Higashikawa is like no other. If the weather is cooperating, you can take the Asahidake ropeway to the top of the mountain and hike right across some of the deepest snow in Japan, walking over ridges and sliding on your bum into huge powder filled ravines.
If the weather is clear, you might even spot the hot steam riding from the many volcanic steam vents on this ancient volcanic mountain – a site to behold when it’s -15’c!
If the weather doesn’t cooperate and there’s no visibility at the top of the mountain, you can go snow shoeing near the towns water reservoir, though magical woodlands and across cobalt blue streams interspersed with snow covered rocks and maybe even the appearance of some rabbits or foxes. In summer, this is where you’ll also find bears – as the signs so helpfully point out!
View this post on Instagram
Gorgeous onsen hotels
While my 16 day trip to Japan was dotted with memorable hotel, ryokan and temple stays – staying in Asahidake Yumoto Yukomanso Onsen Hotel at the foot of Asahidake was definitely a highlight. The hotel boasts three onsen baths on the property, two of which are outdoors and surrounding by high walls of snow in winter!
Out of all the pretty insane hotels I’ve stayed at in Japan, this one was the most magical. When you arrive in the reception, it feels like an old school hunting lodge – with a bright fire burning in the corner.
The food is also world-class and the views out the bedroom windows are simply unbeatable. They even claim members of the royal family have stayed here and. bathed in their famous hot springs – some of which are over 100 years old.
The real gem is the various bath houses, however, where you can warm up from a day on the slopes or simple hop from one hot spring bath to the next, enjoying magical winter views, without ever actually having to leave the hotel grounds.
Another quirky add on? The owners’ daughter is an Olympic Silver medallist in snowboarding, and trains here in Asahidake mountain!
An ice sculpture festival
Every year in the middle of winter, Higashikawa host their very own snow and ice sculpture festival. While small, the entire community comes together to make this magical one-of-a-kind festival happen. All the local school kids work together to make some of the smaller sculptures and the 100+ miniature snowmen that line the entrance to the festival.
The community also takes home buckets, fill them with water and then use them as glittering lanterns for the hundreds of candles that are lit at night and line the street leading to the festival.
While lasting 2 days, the first night is the main even when there is a 10 minute long fireworks show and the entire town comes out to watch, wrapped up warm, standing in the snow, watching the sky over their enchanting town light up with exploding fire crackers.
There’s delicious festival street food, a slide made of ice and many more snow activities I’ll talk about further down in this article. There’s a lot of activities on offer for visitors, and we even got to carve out own glass out of a chunk of ice!
A unique way of living
What makes Higaskikawa such a special place, and why do people from all over Japan and even abroad choose to move to this small town in Hokkaido?
It seems a strong sense of community, an innovative mayor and a foreign language school have all helped. While most rural towns in Japan have seen their population declining since 2013, Higashikawa has seen a small but steady increase.
Summer parties, community festivals and many great social programs have both attracted new residents and kept the towns current residents happy and firmly rooted.
The town and all its residents also have free access to calcium and mineral-rich water from nearby Daisetuzan National Park. Even local business and companies do not have to pay for water in Higashikawa and anyone can actually walk to the source and bottle it up direct.
The town opened the first ever publicly run international Japanese school for foreign students in 2015 – with may of the students coming from across Asia to study Japanese, and given part-time jobs in the local cafes and restaurants to help practice their language skills.
Another example of the unique sense of community here is the schooling system. On the first day of school, every newly enrolled student receives their very own personalised chair which they keep for the duration of the school days. This helps create a stronger connection to their school and community, and a real sense of belonging.
Stunning Frozen Waterfalls
A leisurely 45 minute drive from the town of Higashikawa will take you to one of the most beautiful waterfalls your eyes will ever be lucky enough to see. Even more magical in winter, when the entire area is covered in a blanket of snow and the entire Shirahige Waterfall is frozen solid – like a waterfall stuck in time.
Directly translated as “White Beard Waterfall”, this stunning cascading falls drops into some of the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen – the kind of cobalt blue that’s so vibrant you have to pinch yourself to be sure it’s real. Entrance is free and there are some nice walks in the area if you can brave the cold and snow!
The world-famous Blue Pond
The world-famous blue pond, made famous when it was chosen as one of the main screensavers for Mac Computers, is situated just minutes away rom Shirahige Waterfall and about 40 minutes from the town of Biei.
The Blue Pond, officially known as “Shirogane Blue Pond” is a real natural wonder and is firmly on the top of many photographers Japan bucket lists.
While the pond is beautiful to visit year round, the colour of the water and its various hues of blue depend on the season – and if you visit in the midst of winter when its frozen over – you actually won’t be able to see the pond at all. Summer and autumn are great times to visit, as well as that brief period at the end of Winter when the pond is no longer frozen but the surrounding forest is still covered in snow – pure magic!
While both of these natural Hokkaido attractions aren’t technically in the town of Higashikawa, they’re just a short drive away and I definitely believe Higashikawa is the perfect base for exploring the surrounding area.
An amazing cafe culture
Thanks to the mineral and calcium-rich waters to be found nearby, Higaskikawa’s love for coffee, and high quality organic coffee in particular, has fuelled a unique cafe culture. For a town so small, there’s a disproportionate amount of coffee shops – so much so that a book has even been produced documenting the coffee shops of Higashikawa.
Cute cafes like Roaster Coaster (their waffles and hot chocolate are a must and they have a mini photo gallery of local award-winning photographers) and Liko To Go (great for those traditional fish-shaped cakes with red bean paste inside) are must visits when in town, but I’m sure you’ll find many more to love too.
Unique snow activities
While cross-country skiing, snowboarding and maybe even snow shoeing might be fairly normal, the town of Higashikawa has found many other fun ways to keep its residents entertained in winter.
One such activity is a unique take on a much-loved watersport – whereby you tie a banana boat (a giant inflatable banana!) to the back of a snowmobile and tow excited children (and adults) around a field covered in snow. Replace the banana with a raft and you have snow rafting, too!
It’s also said that the snow on Asahidake is perfect that it attracts a very snowboarders with a unique skill set who carve their way down the slopes in such an elegant way that it looks like a cross between dance and calligraphy!
Small town ski resorts
While Niseko is by far the most well know place in Japan to go skiing, many people don’t know the whole of Hokkaido is dotted with much smaller, beginner-friendly ski resorts. For example, Canmore Village in Higashikawa is a perfect example of a small town ski resort perfect for all the family.
No queues, reasonable prices for ski rental and ski passes, a range of slopes depending on skill level and gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. The school children of Higashikawa actually come here as part of their winter PE classes, with all kids learning to ski from a very young age!
Just one more reason to visit the charming town of Higaskikawa.